Review by Kathleen Campion
11 August 2015
One of Shakespeare's most convoluted plots — even among the comedies — Cymbeline relies on the conventions of star-crossed, cross-dressing lovers, lost royal heirs, worrisome potions, purloined love tokens, loyal servants and entertaining fools — but more so. It is the second offering of The Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte this Summer.
Even the Wikipedia summary is headachy-long, but the story, in a nutshell, is that Imogen, daughter of King Cymbeline, loves and secretly marries Posthumus, a man raised in her father's court. Discovering the union, the king banishes Posthumus and contrives with his current queen to marry his daughter to the queen's dopey son.
Posthumus flees to Italy and falls victim to a subplot, as a swaggering young Italian, Iachimo (Raul Esparza), bets he can seduce Imogen. He manages to convince Posthumus he's "had" her, and the slander sets off a series of death and suicide speeches. Still with me?
For her part, Imogen takes off after her lover-husband and, in the woods, encounters three men who take to her immediately, like family, because they are... well, two of them are. You see what I mean?
So anyway, as it is a comedy, all this struggle and strife works its way to a happy conclusion. As with all of the comedies, the play is the thing — but the plot is not!
Director Daniel Sullivan does a miraculous job of trimming up the traditional five acts to a manageable three hours. He puts two cohorts of the audience on stage and uses them as props and barriers, villains to be called out, foils for the players' humor; he even gives them a few lines. (These seats are apparently a combination of house seats and donor seats.)
Sullivan has an arsenal of wonderful diversions to keep us alert to the humor of the piece. There is an early surprise — a time-and musical shape-shifting number that is brilliant! (I won't spoil it but you'll know it, when it hits you.)
That splashy humor has a wow factor, to be sure, but the whole production is salted with subtler wonders. There is a moment when the king, Cymbeline, (Patrick Page), who has been rather slow to "get" the whole picture, turns to the audience to ask: "Did you all know this?"
Sullivan manages some of the best moments wordlessly as when the oafish character, Cloten, standing between the king and the Roman ambassador, attempts to speak on matters of state. The two statesmen, in silence and with precision, take a giant step away from the dolt.
Hamish Linklater, plays both the noble lover and the boorish would-be lover. As "the clot" (Cloten), he struts and rants and plays the fool with real distinction. We mean to hate him, but he is so genuinely funny, we cannot. Every presumptuous barfly, out-to-lunch middle manager, every "as-if" guy you have ever met lives in this portrayal. As the earnest young lover Linklater is certainly pretty but far less fun.
Raul Esparza (Iachimo) plays the strutting Italian Lothario, who claims he's seduced the virtuous Imogen. Esparza plays Iachimo with a lounge lizard's slippery grace. He's Fonzy and Old Blue Eyes by turns. The bedroom scene he plays with the sleeping Imogen (Lily Rabe) is all hunger and malice, artfully done.
This is, of course, Lily Rabe's show. Many actors sparkle, but she gets all the heat. She is the disobedient daughter, the abandoned wife, the wronged virgin, the hunted prize. Rabe owns the center here; all the follow spots follow her. There are moments when she is chewing the scenery, just a bit.
Jacob Ming-Trent is, once again, irrepressible, all but bursting with exuberance. (His "dog" in Father Comes Home From the Wars leaps to mind whenever he steps on a stage.) With David Furr, he winds up the audience at the open, seeming to be just the guys who tell you to turn off your cell phones, which they do, but actually they ease you into the action like practiced pickpockets flashing bright shiny objects.
Kate Burton, draped in black and all but cackling gives us "the evil queen" with little ambiguity. Casting her as Belarius as well, the banished lord, seems a misstep as there is no obvious reason for the gender swapping and it comes off false.
Music plays a huge role in Cymbeline's success. Music Director Matt Gallagher, with a small band of musicians, makes the interesting and — musicologists will argue — authentic connection between Elizabethan and Appalachian music and dance. They wrap the whole night up with a festive, surprising and then familiar hoedown.
"Daniel Sullivan, the reliably fine director whose Shakespeare productions here usually have avoided self-conscious concepts, has almost made a U-turn with this disappointing staging."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Shakespeare's 'Cymbeline' is such a convoluted mashup about love and war and much more that getting it even halfway right is something. The Public Theater's al fresco take on the late, not-so-great play manages that mean feat by fighting fire with fire: Unruly play? Freewheeling approach!"
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"By the time the lengthy evening concludes with an elaborate dance number in which Esparza garners cheers for his Broadway-style moves, you're likely to feel thoroughly exhausted. The play's happy ending has never felt so hard-earned."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"The problem with director Daniel Sullivan's fresh take on the play for Shakespeare in the Park is that it's neither here nor there — not outrageous enough to be funny, but not sober enough to be taken seriously."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...
New York Times - New York Daily News - Hollywood Reporter - Variety
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